An Easy Target

“An old lady living alone is a target,” my mother insisted. This was her argument against hiring somebody to help her clean her house. On the surface, everything was fine. The bathrooms had fresh flowers, but the sinks were caked with dirt and the toilets smelled. There was fresh food in the refrigerator, but the smell of rotten fruit and vegetables beneath the new week’s groceries was overpowering. The garbage disposal was broken and gave off a musty odor. The dishwasher was loaded with dirty dishes, but never run. My mother herself was beginning to carry the stale odor of unwashed clothes. I tried to explain patiently to my mother how much better her life would be if she allowed somebody to come and clean her house.

Each week, I’d take the A train down to Penn Station, get on the LIRR and walk a mile from the station to my mother’s home. There, I’d whip through the house, cleaning frantically and making mental lists of the chores that still needed to be completed. I’d arrive home exhausted, facing a family that had just eaten Chinese delivery so that I could spend time cleaning my mother’s house. My husband whispered fiercely to me at night: “I don’t want you cleaning your mother’s toilet. She’s not a target; she’s just stubborn.”
It’s not that my toilet scrubbing made my mother happy. My cleaning left something to be desired, she informed me. She couldn’t see that her house was falling down around her. But she could see what a lousy job I did on the cleaning. I was good for cleaning the house, but not too good at doing it.

While I was scrubbing her toilet, she would complain that she couldn’t trust people to come and clean her home. They worked for agencies. They were resentful. They didn’t do a good job. They weren’t reliable. They were dishonest. “An old lady living alone is a target,” she would insist. I continued to argue while I scoured the commode.

When I finally told my mother that my husband didn’t want me cleaning her house, she was alarmed. I insisted that I would help her hire a local cleaning person so she wouldn’t be a target.

I sought the advice of colleague who also lived on Long Island. “Nothing could be easier,” his wife assured me. “I belong to a local Yahoo group. People are always recommending a couple in town who run their own cleaning company. They live right up the street from your mother. Their names are Lester and Guy.” Great.

I called their cell phone and they came over to my mother’s house within ten minutes. Lester did most of the talking. He and his partner, Guy, toured the house asking questions about linen closets and trash collection schedules. They crooned over the photo of my dead brother and his partner: “So handsome. Such a loss for your family. Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of your mother.” They gave me their business card and a list of references to call. Before they left, Lester whispered in my ear: “If something comes up, we can be here in ten minutes. Just call us.”

My mother welcomed this couple into her home. We began spending quality time together working together in the garden, eating leisurely lunches on the back deck and watching old movies on YouTube. It had been worth waiting to find this pair of angels, I thought. They were cleaning service and social workers rolled into one.

Two weeks later, I arrived with my family for Rosh Hashanah. We found her holiday table beautifully set with crystal and silver. But in the spice cabinet where my mother hid her gold jewelry, the space was empty. After the meal, we convinced my mother to call the police. They arrived within ten minutes.

At my mother’s holiday table, two police officers sat, drank coffee and listened. We described and drew pictures of the missing jewelry, much of it gifts from my father during their frequent travels. We gave them Lester and Guy’s business card. “You’re not accusing anybody of stealing,” they reassured my mother. “You are just reporting jewelry missing from your home. Then, we write up the report and pass it along to the detectives. They are the ones who determine what might have happened.” My mother was greatly relieved. “You know,” she told them, “an old lady living alone is an easy target.” They looked at one another and nodded in agreement.

A week later, I received a call from the Nassau Police Department. “I believe I have your mother’s jewelry,” the detective said. “I’ll send you a JPEG.” An image of my mother’s jewelry loomed on my computer screen. I recognized the jewelry, but it wasn’t the same. It had been “processed.” A constellation of gold earrings that had long ago lost their mates was next to a ring that was missing its gold coin. A heavy gold bracelet was snapped in three pieces. An antique brooch that had been my great grandmother’s had been ripped off a bracelet my mother had designed to hold it. The jewelry, the detective informed me, had been sold for scrap.

At the police station with my mother, we picked out Lester from a sheet of headshots pulled from DMV driver’s license files. The detective circled Lester’s photo, which we both initialed. We learned that he had taken my mother’s jewelry to a local pawn shop. It was less than a mile away, in the same town where she, Lester and Guy all lived. Only Lester was arrested as he had been the one to sell the broken jewelry to the pawn shop. He had produced the photo ID required by law. The detectives had easily connected his name with the report of missing jewelry during their weekly sweep of area pawn shops.

“Was it arrogance or stupidity?” my mother asked, astonished. “Was it desperation?” The police did the paperwork for an Order of Protection—one for me, and one for my mother. It was standard policy.

My mother suddenly became afraid to live alone. She knew she lived in the same town as the convicted felon who had stolen her jewelry. She asked to leave her home of more than half a century.

I moved my mother into a tiny apartment in an independent living unit for seniors. Now, my mother couldn’t stop thinking about her former home, the home where she had raised her children, lived as wife to my father and reigned as mistress of the house. “An old lady living alone is an easy target,” she sighed. I didn’t want to agree, but I saw that my mother had lost her zest for living. Her spirit seemed to have flown away. When she died not long after the move, I wore a gold bracelet to her funeral that had been stolen and recovered. The bracelet had been repaired, but I knew my mother’s heart had never recovered from being an easy target.

MOTHER CABRINI

MOTHER CABRINI

Cabrini Boulevard runs parallel to the west of Fort Washington Avenue.  Though sounding grand and wide, it is actually a smaller and much less active thoroughfare.  Cabrini Boulevard actually functions as sort of a back road for Hudson Heights residents seeking to avoid the rush of Fort Washington Avenue or desperately (most often futilely) seeking parking in the neighborhood.

Cabrini Boulevard is named after St. Frances Xavier Cabrini founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.  Mother Cabrini’s first idea had been to go from her native Italy to Asia and convert the Chinese.  But the Pope had other ideas and said:  “Not to the East, but to the West.”  Mother Cabrini’s mission was to cater to America’s Italian immigrants flooding Ellis Islands with dreams for a better life.  Her work was tireless.  Hospitals, orphanages and schools spread across the country and then beyond U.S. borders.

Mother Cabrini’s life was tied to America forever.  She became an American citizen in 1909.  In 1946, she became the first American citizen to be canonized.  Today, she is known as the Mother of Immigrants.

Sister Adelina, a Cabrini nun I grew to know, had told me that during her early work in New York, Mother Cabrini used to stop her horse drawn buggy in Hudson Heights.  Here, she would rest and enjoy the view of the Palisades across the Hudson River.   In 1898, Mother Cabrini purchased a large parcel of land running several blocks north from 190 Street.  Here, she built a complex with a church, a school and a hospital running from north to south.

Today, you encounter the walled complex directly across the street from the 190 Station of the A train.  The complex is bordered by Fort Washington Avenue on the east, and on the west by Cabrini Boulevard.

Mother Cabrini Church is a fascinating moment of mid-twentieth century religious architecture.   The church is designed with its main doors on the west side, off Cabrini Boulevard.  But that entrance hasn’t been used in years.  Church visitors enter through Fort Washington Avenue.  This means that they approach the altar from the rear and back track into the main sanctuary.

Mother Cabrini herself presides over this space.  Her relics are displayed, somewhat like Snow White, under a glass coffin beneath the altar.  She is dressed in the black and white habit of her order.  On my first visit, I was fascinated to see how well-preserved she appeared.  She pretty much looked like the old Italian nun that she actually had been at her death, only with a fresher, more dewy complexion.

The relics of Mother Cabrini rest below the altar.  Mosaics depicting key events in the life of Mother Cabrini adorn the walls.

The relics of Mother Cabrini rest below the altar. Mosaics depicting key events in the life of Mother Cabrini adorn the walls.

The secret to her youthful complexion is revealed by a small plaque on the wall of the church.  The plaque informs visitors the saint’s “hands and head are venerated in Rome.”   This means that what the visitor actually sees is the decapitated and handless body of Mother Cabrini.  These body parts are  covered by wax that has been cunningly modeled and painted a rosy pink with the slightest tinge of blue.

For weeks after I made this discovery, I indulged in ghoulish fascination over how these alterations had actually had been carried out.  Finally, I decided that I really didn’t want to know too much.  I was happy to know that Hudson Heights was under the protection of such a strong woman.  But after this revelation, my children refused to set foot in the church for years.

Behind the altar are beautiful mosaics depicting the major events in the life of Mother Cabrini.  These read like a scroll from left to right, beginning with her early education in Italy, and ending with her work in New York and her canonization.  My favorite mosaics show her kneeling in front of Pope Leo III with the words:  “Not to the East, but to West” above the scene.  The settling of New York is defined by a mosaic depiction of the Statue of Liberty.

In addition to her missionary work, Mother Cabrini became known for miracles.  These played a role in her beatification and later, her canonization.  In her church today are hundreds of small tributes thanking her for working cures and solving problems.   I find the most interesting of these are the handcrafted tokens with pictures of babies or young children who have been conceived or cured with Mother Cabrini’s help.  In glass vitrines lining the walls are relics associated with Mother Cabrini.  These range from wax seals to night gowns to the spring from her dentures.

Visitors to the shrine can also ask to be blessed by her relics, which are kept in a drawer in the gift shop.  One of the lovely ladies working in the gift shop told me that many people come asking to be blessed.  If you make such a request, you are asked if there is any particular part of your body that needs Mother Carbrini’s attentions.  “One gentleman came in and said he had prostate cancer,” the lady informed me.  “I told him not to worry.  Mother can go anywhere.”

On her feast day in November, a procession marches down Fort Washington Avenue with various statues.  The parade is accompanied by the Mother Cabrini High School band in their school uniforms and The Red Mike Festival Band from New Jersey in oversized red caps as they walk south from 190 Street to 181 Street.

As I have a terrace that looks out over Fort Washington Avenue, I participate by throwing rose petals off the balcony.  I try my best to hit the statues as they pass beneath my apartment.  But Fort Washington Avenue is wider than you would imagine.  My efforts mostly result in flower petals hitting the sidewalk below.

From my balcony, I can see the complex hospital, St. Elizabeth, built by Mother Cabrini.  The hospital shut its doors years ago, victim to real estate inflation and government health care directives in the 1980s.  The building is now another Hudson Heights coop, though it still retains a small chapel on the side, and semi-circular drive under its entry canopy.  Many residents of Hudson Heights were born in St. Elizabeth Hospital.  Local lore holds that it was here that Maria Callas entered the world, not the swankier Flower Hospital on Fifth Avenue that is claimed in her biographies.

Located between the hospital and the church, Mother Cabrini had built a high school for girls.  The students were a familiar sight in Hudson Heights in their maroon jackets and plaid skirts.

Mother Cabrini High School is flanked by a church to the north and the former St. Elizabeth Hospital (now a coop) along Fort Washington Avenue.

Mother Cabrini High School is flanked by a church to the north and the former St. Elizabeth Hospital (now a coop) along Fort Washington Avenue.

In January 2014, the neighborhood was stunned by the announcement that Mother Cabrini High School would be closing its doors at the end of the school year.  The newspapers reported low enrollment figures and fiscal hardship.  After one hundred and fifteen years, Mother Cabrini High School will cease to exist.   It would be the second casualty in Mother Cabrini’s Hudson Heights complex.

Hearing the news, made me think about Mother Cabrini and her vision for the complex she built on the lovely spot overlooking the Hudson.  I like to imagine Mother Cabrini might feel the closing of the school was a sign that her work among the immigrants of the last century had been accomplished.   The children and grandchildren of those immigrants were now simply part of American life; full participants in its rights and responsibilities.   I like to imagine that Mother Cabrini would point her finger at our New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, whose Italian grandparents were immigrants to New York City.   Finally, I like to imagine that Mother Cabrini would tell our Mayor that he should drop the knife and fork, get a slice to go, and take the A train up to Hudson Heights.  Here, he’ll see firsthand what a difference a strong, New York woman made to the lives of thousands of New Yorkers at the turn of the twentieth century.    And, he can still enjoy the views of the Hudson.

STORIES FROM HUDSON HEIGHTS

TALES FROM AN OLD NEWSPAPER

My daughter began a friendship with an elderly couple on the third floor.  She loved to visit their apartment where she would always find a bowl filled with hard candies and she could play with the cats in the apartment.  She called the couple Ruth and Abraham.

Ruth was originally from Holland, and Abraham from Berlin.  They had met and married in Palestine as refugees who had lost all other family.   Abraham was about ten years older than his wife, and his body spoke of his ordeals.  His knees were gnarled and painful.  He spent his days on the sofa where, he read a creased and folded newspaper through thick, black glasses that magnified his eyes and the coarse hairs of his eyebrows.  A small gray cat named “Shmuel” was either curled up on the sofa next to him or draped across his thin frame.

local residents on Fort Washington by Susan NYC via Flickr

Writing a homework assignment for English class, my daughter described his labored movement moving from the sofa to the dining room table: “His body unfolded like an old newspaper; and like an old newspaper had so many stories to tell on its worn and wrinkled surface.”  The story he most often related to my child was the death of his younger sibling, a sister, aged three, at the hands of the Nazis.

Abraham’s family had been desperately poor.  He and his younger siblings were sent to be cared for by the Jewish orphanage in Berlin.  It was one of the first stops for the Nazis in their Final Solution as they took over the capital city.  Abraham’s cracked voice choked with rage as he shouted:  “The Nazis killed my baby sister.”  His trembling fingers were clenched into fists.   For a split second, in his impotent rage, I could see the young man he had been.  Now, an old man, his hands could no longer manage to hold a fist.  But the passion in his voice reverberated through the years and through the ears of my child.  She felt his heartache, relating his stories to her brother upon her return from a third floor visit.

Ruth was just the opposite of her husband and his house-bound ways.  She was most often encountered on the streets, pushing a black metal shopping cart in front of her.  She was easy to spot, her slow progress along the street was punctuated by the whirl of pigeon wings, the soft cooing of dozen of contented birds that swooped down to feed on the birdseed or bread crumbs that she scattered as she made her daily promenade around the building.   The cart was filled with plastic bags, and the plastic bags were filled with food for the birds, a combination of bird seed and stale bread and crackers.

Ruth was a familiar sight, and a sight many people in Hudson Heights did not enjoy.   Stopping to chat with Ruth wasn’t always very pleasant.  She could often not be bothered to wear her false teeth, leaving gaps through which spittle flew when she spoke.  Her blouses were often covered in cat hair.  Worst of all was her jacket, spattered with pigeons poop in an irregular pattern that seems concentrated on the sleeves where she let the pigeons alight to feed from her hands.

Passersby would should insults at Ruth as they walked or jogged past her.  They saw her act of feeding pigeons as both illegal and disgusting.  They gestured to the mess on the sidewalks.  They demanded she stop and threatened to call the cops—a gesture Ruth knew was ridiculous.  The cops from the 34th Precinct pretty much ignored Hudson Heights except for the incessant ticketing of cars.  My children referred to these pigeons as “flying rats.”  I recall my son once marveling at a pair of pigeons perched on a tree branch:  “Look Mommy, the pigeons think they’re birds.”

Ruth would sometimes shout back at her antagonists.  “They are just as worthy as birds in the park,” she would retort.  For Ruth, those people were making a distinction between tiny brown sparrows, which were okay to feed, and the larger pigeons with their iridescent markings which the law said should not be fed.  And for Ruth, it was the same distinction that had been made between Jews and Gentiles in Nazi Europe.  “Why is this bird worthy to be fed and not the other,” she demanded rhetorically.  That is what Hitler said about the Jews.  I will feed whatever birds I wish to feed.”

 I knew that no matter how many people shouted at Ruth, she could always be found feeding the pigeons of Hudson Heights where patriots had battled Hessians and Tories—and lost.  While her husband clenched his fists in impotent rage, she was fighting Hitler with her plastic bags of birdseed and bread crumbs.

Those sidewalks, so devoid of footmarks and graffiti, sidewalks that glittered with mica in the light of evening streetlamps, were a battle ground for Ruth.  And each day she fed the pigeons, she was winning that fight.

YOUR NAME IS ON THE LIST OF THE DEAD

The Helner family lived on our floor, and I often bumped into Mr. Helner during my daily chores.  Mrs. Helner had been born in the same town as her mother.  She explained to me, “When my mother was born, it was in Hungary.  When I was born, it was Romania.”  Honestly, it might have been the other way around.  It was tough for me to understand the shifting borders that had defined her life before Hudson Heights.

Mrs. Helner still had a very strong accent—Hungarian or Romanian—I guess.   She tried to speak very precisely so that she would be understood.  She was a proud woman, once telling me about her experiences, “I picked myself up and I made a life of dignity for myself and my family.”

From Mrs. Helner, I learned the history of the previous residents of my apartment.  Before we moved into our apartment, the family of a United States Army colonel lived there.  The Colonel, as everybody had called him, had served in Europe in World War II.  He had been present at the liberation of the camps.

Mrs. Helner had married her husband, a doctor, after her arrival in New York.  Dr. Helner had often come to the apartment during the Colonel’s final decline, to attend to his medical needs.  “It was my way of thanking him,” he explained to me.  “I was so pleased that I could pay back in any way the man who had saved so many lives in such a terrible place.”  This story made me feel much better about my new building and its residents.

Mrs. Helner had been filmed by Steven Spielberg for his Shoah Remembrance Project.  She had also written a memoir about her experiences, which she lent to me one day after a chat in the laundry room.  Her goal in writing was an accurate recitation of dates and places—just the facts ma’am.  There was little mention of her feelings and emotions, as if she had used up her quota of humanness just surviving.

Reading her memoir had been surprisingly boring.  It was nothing like the small tales she often told me in the laundry room that I found so fascinating and moving.  One day, as we folded sheets, she told me that throughout the entire war, she had kept a piece of the afikomen hidden in the roof of her mouth.  It was something her father had given to her before he was taken away by the Nazis.

The afikomen is a piece broken off one of the three Passover matzohs.  Part of the children’s role in the Passover seder or service is to search the house for the hidden afikomen.  The seder cannot be completed without it, and the finder receives a small gift or reward.  She kept that piece of dry matzoh hidden, on the roof of her mouth, while she was starving to death, until her liberation by American troops.  “Then,” she said, “when I was liberated I threw it out because I didn’t need it any more to keep alive. I knew I had survived.  Now, I wish I had kept it.  I have nothing left from my father, not even a picture of him.”

One day, I ran into Mrs. Helner at the garbage compactor.  She approached me with a strange smile and offered, “I just had a strange call from my grandson in Yerushaliyim.”  .

“My grandson called me from Yad va Shem,” she explained, referring to the monument commemorating the Shoah called the ‘Hand of G-d.’  “He said, ‘Grandma, I have a question for you, but I’m not sure how to ask it.’”  She gave a wry smile as she savored her words.  “Just ask me, I told him.”

“Grandma, I’m at Yad va Shem, and your name is on the list of the dead. How could that have happened?”

She didn’t lose a beat.  “I told him, I know exactly how it happened.  Let me tell you so you can understand.”

I knew from our conversations in the laundry room that at the beginning of the war, Mrs. Helner had been transported to the first of three concentration camps along with her two cousins who lived in the same village—the place she and her mother had both been born.  The three girls had been thirteen, fourteen and fifteen at the beginning of the war.  She was in between her two cousins in age.  She took up her tale a few days before Liberation.

“The Nazis knew the end of the war was coming.  They had lost.  They wanted to get rid of us.  They marched us day and night.  Then, they forced us into the river.  None of us knew how to swim.  I have no idea how I made it to the other side, but I did.”

“Later, my older cousin told me, ‘You were strong for us.  You told us that G-d would open the waters for us just as he did for Moses when the Jews were fleeing Pharaoh.’  I have no memory of that at all.  I just know we made it.  All three of us.”

“We arrived at the camp, but my younger cousin was dying.  When they called for appel, the prisoner head count each morning, she could not stand by herself.  Although I knew it was forbidden, I held her up.  Not to do so would mean that she would be sent to the infirmary; and from the infirmary, straight to the ovens.”

“Sometimes appel took a long time.  Those Germans counted and recounted us until their accounting books, accounting books of dead and living human beings, could be reconciled.  Sometimes we would stand for hours.  And that day, it took a long time for the Germans to be happy with their count.”

“At some point, an S.S. man saw me holding up my little cousin.  Then, oh I got a beating,” she shook two fingers on her right hand fiercely as she said this.  I could barely imagine a grown man beating a teenaged girl, and her gesture was terrible.  She continued: ‘When he decided he had beaten me enough, he pointed to my cousin lying on the ground.  He said to me, ‘Take her to the infirmary and you stay there too.’”  She shrugged:  “I knew I was dead.”

“I dragged my little cousin to the infirmary.  I don’t know how I had the strength to do it.  I placed her in the first bed.  I said goodbye.  Then, I walked to the end of the infirmary and jumped out the window.”  She shrugged her shoulders as if in answer to my unspoken question.   “I was dead already.  I had nothing to lose.”

As Mrs. Helner neared the end of her story, a strange smile came over her.  Her eyes seemed to look back half a century.   “I snuck back into the barracks, and three days later, we were liberated by the Americans.  My little cousin was dead.  But I knew that my older cousin and I had survived.  We would live.”

She remembered: “Those Nazis were very efficient.  My name had already been added to the list of the dead.  They liked to have their lists just so.  That is how I ended up at Yad va Shem although I have lived in New York for over fifty years.”

She smiled:  “My grandson said, Grandma, the man at Yad va Shem says to send him some document to prove you are alive, living in New York.  The man says he will be happy to take your name off the list of the dead.’”

WRAPPED IN BROWN PAPER

The number of Holocaust survivors in Hudson Heights prompted the local synagogue to let loose a bunch of kid with video cameras.  The idea was an oral history project, interviewing the survivors who were still part of the daily fabric of Hudson Heights.  Time was running out for them to tell their stories.  We viewed the videos at the Shavuot ice-cream party/religious school graduation of my daughter’s friend.

Shavuot and Sunday School graduations often go hand-in-hand as Shavuot is usually in May or June.  On Shavuot, the Ten Commandments are recited in the synagogue to mark the giving of the Decalogue through Moses on Mount Sinai.  I heard two stories about the choice of ice-cream party and the tradition of dairy meals on Shavuot.  One said the ice-cream party was a reference to the Torah being spiritually as sweet as honey and nourishing as milk.  The other that when the Jews returned to their tents after receiving the Ten Commandments, there was no time to prepare meat, so a quick dairy meal was prepared.  In this way, ice-cream parties had become a happy way to celebrate religious school graduations with large containers of ice-cream and a buffet of toppings set out for the graduates, their friends and families.

The Sunday School graduation was very nice.  The Book of Ruth was read to compare Ruth’s embracing of Judaism with the acceptance of the Ten Commandments by the Jews.  I was pleased that my daughter could see how strong a woman could be, and how making a commitment was something one took seriously in spite of inconveniences and hardships.

In the Social Hall, the graduates and their friends and families ate ice-cream while their videos were shown.  The videos were terrible—out-of-focus and shaky.  But the stories were amazing.  While we heard stories about the camps that we expected, other stories were smaller, more intimate.  One, perhaps the smallest, was the one that haunted us the most.

The narrator was an elderly Jewish lady I knew by sight as we passed each other along Fort Washington Avenue, trekking back and forth with groceries.  A small and vibrant woman, she was composed but thoughtful as she chose her story, obviously one of dozens she could choose to tell.  It was the story that for her, was still ongoing.

The story began in the living room of a Jewish apartment in pre-war Germany.  “We had all applied for papers,” explained the narrator.  “Some of us asked for papers to go to Palestine.  Others had relatives in other countries.  My husband had a cousin in New York, so we applied to come here.”

 Our good neighbors, they also had family in New York.  We felt better that we wouldn’t be alone in a strange city in a strange land.  Our families had grown up together and would be neighbors again when we settled in New York.”

“Our papers came first, and we began to pack up everything in our apartment.  We knew we would never return to Germany.  We thought we would never see our city again.  But we were glad that we were taking ‘the best’ of the city with us, our neighbors, to our new home in New York.”

“When it came time for us to leave, our neighbors were still waiting for their papers.  ‘We’ll join you soon, just as soon as our papers come, we’ll join you in New York,’ they said.  And the mother gave to me a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.  ‘Please take this for us to New York.  Some linens, so that when we arrive, we’ll have something to start our new lives.’”

“I took the package,” she explained.  “But they never came.  They didn’t get their papers in time.”

The video seemed to end as a long silence ensued.  Then, the voice became tighter, higher, more constricted as the story continued.

“I still have that package.  It’s on the top shelf of my linen closet at home.  Those linens are still waiting.  I’ve moved three times, and each time, I took that package with me.  Now, I don’t know what to do with those linens.  Who will take care of them when I’m gone?  Should I give them to my daughter for safekeeping?  Should I open the package?  Who will take care of those linens when I’m gone?”

In the Social Hall, the sound of scraping chairs and shuffling feet completely quieted.  Who could answer?  Like the Story of Ruth, we had heard a Shavuot tale about families moving away from their native land, settling in a new place, planning for a new life.  Ruth had become the ancestress of a king.  This woman had linens wrapped in brown paper and tied with string to be passed along to the next generation.  And a story that would endure.

HUDSON HEIGHTS

Scout Finch spoke of Macomb as being “a tired old town” when she knew it.  When we moved to Hudson Heights in 1998, it was more than “old and tired” put together.  It felt as if I had arrived on Florida’s Costa Geriatrica, a place where people came to die.  The

Hudson Heights

Hudson Heights is bounded by Fort Tryon Park tot he north and the George Washington Bridge to the south.

median age of the residents was hovering in digits usually assigned to descriptions of hot and muggy weather.  And believe me, these people were the kind that made you feel just as sweaty and uncomfortable under the armpits.

The Mayor’s office called the area a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, or NORC, a euphemism for a bunch of old people dying, with the result that younger families could move in.  Cut to chase, it was really one of the last places that middle class families could live in Manhattan.  Columbia University’s expansions were squeezing Manhattan real estate from its 116th Street campus to the medical center.  The only place to go was “up.”

Located on the swan’s neck of upper Manhattan, Hudson Heights was defined, like an ancient kingdom, by geographical points.  Where ancient glaciers had descended from the north to the south and formed the island, their slow progress had left cliffs of bedrock in the north.  Hudson Heights now perched on these bluffs overlooking the Hudson River to the west, with the spectacular Palisades defining the coast of New Jersey.  To the east, its height separated it from Bennett Avenue where Orthodox families lived and had their shuls and a yeshiva. To the north was the vast green expanse of Fort Tryon Park bordering Inwood on the northern tip of Manhattan.

Only the southern border was signaled by the man-made expanse of the George Washington Bridge, spanning the Hudson and linking New Jersey with the island—or Manhattan with the mainland, depending on your point of view.  When the fog rolled in, New Jersey was completely hidden from view.  My kids would scream in delight:  “New Jersey has disappeared!”  They were thrilled.

Some people called the area “Washington Heights.”  And, indeed, Ft. Washington Avenue ran through Hudson Heights like the spine of a flounder with the streets, like bones to the east and west.  But the Real Estate section of The New York Times was really pushing the Hudson Heights nomenclature.  The price of coops, after a very dry spell during the 1990s, was rising.  They certainly didn’t want people thinking that they were buying in a neighborhood where their neighbors would be “ethnics.”

The gentrification was already in full force when we arrived in 1998.  I guess you could say that the complexion of the neighborhood was changing, but which I mean, more white folks were already moving in.

Fort Washington was actually really a fort, dating from the American Revolution, and the days when “the Heights” were dominated by wealthy Tory families who owned farms.  The commanding views and narrow neck of Manhattan in the north, had made the area pivotal in the battle for control of the island.  Here, where a U.S. Geological marker pinpoints the highest spot in Manhattan (254 feet above sea level!), patriots had built a defensive position against enemy troops.  They had failed completely.  The proof was that even 250 years after a British victory, a NYC public park was named after the last English Civil Governor to rule the city.

Much of the older population of Hudson Heights was refugee German Jews from the 1930s and 40s.  So great had been the influx that the area was often referred to as “Hamburg on the Hudson.”   Among the notable immigrants were the Kissinger family, whose two sons had grown up on the apartment on Fort Washington Avenue, and whose formidable matriarch still lived in the same apartment.

I supposed that when they’d moved in as refugees in the thirties and forties, these immigrants had been young and vibrant, filled with dreams for making a new life in a new country.  Now, after more than a half century of competing and arguing with each other, they were brittle and sere.  There wasn’t a trace of the genteel grace you’d expect from ladies with European accents and stiffly coiffed hair topped by felt hats.

Bitterness seemed to have oozed from their hearts onto sidewalks along Fort Washington Avenue and Cabrini Boulevard.  These sidewalks glittered under evening streetlights with specks of mica, making them seem to contain constellations of tiny stars.  Their surfaces were smooth and unmarred.  They had had no dirty words carved into them with a stick when wet, or small footprints impressed in wet cement to show that children had ever lived in this neighborhood, played in the park, or eaten ice-cream as they walked home from school.  The lone exception was on our street corner of 190 Street and Fort Washington Avenue.  Here, somebody had carefully and neatly written “POOP” on the corner of one cement square.  This just went to prove, my kids said, that there hadn’t been kids living in the area for a long, long time.  Or, as my son put it in 1998:  “Nobody talks like that anymore.”

Our home, a red brick tower on 190th Street, was sandwiched in between Cabrini Boulevard and Fort Washington Avenue.  The building, fifteen stories high, turned out to be the highest building in Manhattan due to its location near the highest point on the island.  This was pretty much the only remarkable thing about the building other than the residents we came to know.

Our building had been built during the Eisenhower years, the time when America had the most money and the least taste.  There was absolutely nothing distinguishing about it, except its particularly poor placement with its entrance on 190th Street.  Here, it sat surrounded by undistinguished cypress bushes.  These bushes were trimmed into a hedge like Hitler’s moustache by an illegal Mexican with an electric hedge clipper hired by the coop’s garden committee.    They also planted the two dozen begonias that nodded sadly as residents entered the front entrance.

But really, we had been happy to find the apartment after Columbia kicked us and our five-year-old twins out of our graduate student housing.  In fact, we were part of a mini-exodus of such unfortunates.  The coop’s old timers were leery of the displaced Columbia population and young families moving into the neighborhood.  In the lobby sat the longtime residents, glaring at each other, and occasionally trading a particularly vicious snipe. But gradually, some of the women, old and alone and desperate to chat, began to speak with me in the laundry room, in the hallway, in the mailroom, and outside the compactor where we disposed of our garbage.

Being a Jewish woman, they seemed to feel that I was “one” of them, in spite of my Chinese husband and mixed race kids.  When they stopped to chat with me they sprinkled  their conversation with short phrases in German or Yiddish.   I often didn’t quite get the meaning of these expressions, but always nodded to as if in agreement so as not to stop their tales told in heavily accented tones.  My housekeeping chores were often punctuated by trembling voices telling tales of miraculous escapes, terrible loss and the continuing suffering of their lives.

Who would have known these women had such stories to tell?  And the mix of tales, of experiences, of attitudes within this one building captured every facet of the human condition and psyche.

REVOLUTIONARY WOMEN

It all started with some old bed sheets on a November afternoon.  I took my kids to the commemoration of the Battle of Fort Washington, an event held each year in Washington Heights.  While my son was doing military drills with a long stick, my daughter was busy at the crafts table.  Here, using donated sheets, she transformed herself into Molly Corbin by means of an apron, a shawl, and mob cap.  She was ready for the Revolution.

Alex Wang, age nine, dressed as Molly Corbin, the first woman to take a soldier’s part in the American Revolution and the heroine of the Battle of Fort Washington, November 17, 1776.

Margaret Corbin kept the last cannon firing at the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776.  She had come to aid in the defense of New York with her husband, John, arriving from their farm in Virginia.  When John fell at his cannon, Molly took over his post, keeping the piece firing against General Howe’s troops.  She was wounded, and placed on a wagon for the three-day trip to the patriot stronghold of Philadelphia.  Here, Molly nursed the wounded while her own wounds healed.  She never regained use of her left arm, having taken three grape shot to the shoulder.  Molly later joined the Invalid Corps, and continued to serve in the cause of American freedom.

Like Molly Corbin, Alex Wang’s heart burned at the injustices in America, specifically, her own neighborhood of Washington Heights.  While the traffic circle leading into the park was named after Molly Corbin, the park itself was named after the last English governor of New York, Sir William Tryon.  He also had dibs on Sir William’s Dog Run, a destination frequented by her friend, who had a dachshund named Beans.  Injustice burned in her heart at the marginalization of Molly Corbin’s contribution.  Or, as she put it:  “Lord Tryon can have the traffic circle and keep the dog run.  That park should be named after Molly Corbin.”

Thus, my daughter embarked on her first foray into the world of New York City politics.  I know.  I was her secretary.

Together, we drafted a letter:

Dear Fill in the Blank:

My name is Alexandra Wang.  I am a fourth grade student at PS/IS 187.  Here is my problem.  Every day after school, I play in the park near my house.  It is named after the last English civil governor of New York, William Tryon.  This is not right.  That park should be named after Molly Corbin, the heroine of the Battle of Fort Washington.  Can you please help me change the name of the park?

Alex decided that each letter should be personalized so that the politicians would understand where she was coming from.  To Mayor Bloomberg she added:

PS:  I think you are a pretty good mayor.  Even though you are a Republican, my parents voted for you twice.

She spoke personally to Councilman Robert Jackson at the end of a PTA meeting at PS/IS 187.  He assured her that he would write a response to her letter.  He never did.  Nor did any of the politicians on the all-male list that we had drawn up together.

My daughter raced to the mail box for weeks; then months.  The annual Commemoration of the Battle of Fort Washington came again, and she complained bitterly to the actress playing Molly Corbin that year.  Maybe the woman didn’t understand her.  She still had a terrible lisp.  I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Thish parks dothen’t have a good name.

Huh?

It thould be named after you.

What?

The Englith lothst.  Thish park thould be named for you.

Okay, kid.

In other words, my child was just not getting anything out of her efforts, except perhaps, a lesson that the government for which Molly Corbin had fought for wasn’t quite working out.

Finally, after more than a year after she had written, a response from Parks Commissioner, Adrian Benepe, arrived.  After telling her that they weren’t going to consider renaming the park, he invited her down to the rededication of the statue of George Washington in Union Square.  There, he signed her autograph book and took a picture with her.  A member of his staff gave her an individual Table Top cherry pie.  Things were looking up.

My daughter had learned the lessons of citizen involvement, and the lessons of perseverance.  I was determined to make them stick.  Whenever my kid failed at something, I’d pipe up with an inspiring lesson from our local American history.

I took my kids to learn to swim at the Dodge Fitness Center at Columbia University.  Here, kids on the swimming team gave lessons to earn money for their annual trip to Hawaii.  I guess Maui is far enough away for sordid tales of their exploits not to make it back too quickly to New York.  When my daughter became frustrated by her inability to perfect her dive, I chimed right in:  “What would have happened to the United State of America if George Washington had given up after the Battle of Fort Washington?  You just have to keep trying.”

Later, the Columbia kid told me:  “You deserve death for that.”   I decided to cut it out.

But something must have stuck in my daughter’s heart and mind for all of these years.  Maybe it was even the frustration and disappointment that came from her efforts.  As an adult, she had a better understanding of the politics behind the Fort Tryon Trust and the Rockefeller money that made the park.  “The guy was a closet Anglophile,” she confided to me as we stood watching hummingbirds along the main path of the Heather Garden.

Then one day, she asked me to be her secretary again.  She had written a proposal for a United States Post Office stamp honoring Molly Corbin’s actions at the Battle of Fort Washington in 1776.  In the cover letter, she mentioned she was a resident of Washington Heights.  She failed to mention Fort Tryon Park, Sir William’s Dog Run or Corbin Circle.  And later, she actually got a letter acknowledging her stamp proposal had been received and was “under discussion.”  She was thrilled.  It was the letter she had been waiting for since fourth grade.

Now, the leaves in Fort Tryon Park are changing color.  Plans for the commemoration of the Battle of Fort Washington are scheduled for November 17th this year.  Little boys will drill with wooden sticks, and little girls will wear mob caps and aprons.  They will drink hot apple cider in Fort Tryon Park.  But some things have changed.

Molly Corbin’s name has now been added to the roster of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  As Molly died childless, nobody had entered her name on the organization’s list.  When my daughter expressed her concern, Wilhelmena Kelly, the first woman of color to serve as a DAR Regent amended the list to include Corbin’s name.  An effort is under way to have a posthumous Badge of Military Merit awarded to Margaret Corbin.   Kathleen Silvia, a graduate of the first coed class at West Point, is spearheading the effort composed of military personnel, historians and politicians. Today, my half-Chinese half Jewish daughter, now twenty-one, continues her campaign for United States Postal Service postage stamp honoring the heroine of the Battle of Fort Washington, and the first American woman to take a soldier’s part in the Revolution.

So perhaps we can say that Molly Corbin’s heroic actions did result in creating the government she fought for more than two hundred years ago.   In fact, maybe Molly Corbin’s actions have resulted in an entirely new revolution for American women that she never dared to dream of.  I’d like to think so.

More Powerful Than an Atomic Bomb

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Growing up, Nikita Khrushchev was the man of my dreams.  He crept into my bedroom via the late night news my parents watched after I had gone to bed.  My sleep was filled with scenes of fiery explosions and mushroom clouds. 

During the day, Khrushchev  filled my thoughts as I crouched in my school hallway, hands over head, during regular air raid drills.  Through the crook of my elbow, I saw the ragged rows of my kneeling classmates bordering the brown linoleum that defined the school corridor.  I strained to hear the roar of planes approaching.  I thought breathlessly:  Maybe this time, it’s the real thing and Russian planes, on Khrushchev’s orders, were flying past American defenses and over my school, planning a direct hit on Camp Avenue School in Merrick, Long Island.  There would be a flash, and everybody in the school would be dead. We’d never see the people we loved again. 

But soon, the “all clear” signal was given.  Just moments before, the day had appeared like a cloth with children’s folded bodies along the rippling edge.  Now, it unfolded like a length of seamless satin, smooth and without a wrinkle.  We trooped back into the classroom and resumed our lessons.  Our teachers had assured us that America had the edge in this nuclear age.  Further, God would never abandon our country.  The air raid drill was “just in case.”  I was a Brownie in the Girl Scouts so I understood:  “Be prepared.”   Khrushchev’s Kremlin was no match for Kennedy’s White House. 

Lunch period came, and I saw my best friend, June, in the cafeteria.   June and I wondered, how could an evil man like Khrushchev live in such a fairytale setting?  The Kremlin, with its colorful domed roofs enchanted us.  We knew the Kremlin domes were called onion domes.  But June and I preferred to think of them as soft serve ice-cream, like the kind we got at Carvel on summer week-ends.  “This one has chocolate sprinkles,” said June, “and that one has strawberry and lime sprinkles.”  “He’s like the witch in Hansel and Gretel who lives in a house made of candy,” said June.  We imagined ourselves to be nuclear age characters in a Grimm’s Brother fairy tale.  We joked about how we’d like to lick off the sprinkles and catch Nikita Khrushchev, in his underwear, inside the ice-cream Kremlin.  We’d be heroes, saving America from his evil plans. 

In our Long Island town, air raid drills were signaled by a siren that wailed from the local fire station, the Merrick Volunteer Fire Department.  We knew that fire station very well as it was half-way between our two houses.   We would call each other saying “meet you half way,” and find one another in front of the huge white firehouse doors. 

On week-end evenings, we used to meet in the parking lot behind the firehouse.  Along with the other kids, June and I would come to listen to the Fire Department marching band practice.  That year, for some particular reason, they chose La Cucaracha as their set piece. 

The band was really bad, especially Frank.  He played trombone.  Really, really badly.   At times, the exasperated band leader would announce:  “Everybody from the top, except Frank.”  All us kids would blast wrong notes from our clenched fist trombones, braying into the air “I’m Frank.  I’m Frank.”

In between renditions of La Cucaracha, June and I would get Good Humor from the ice-cream truck, crouch by the fence, and discuss some serious topics.  The most important was love.  We discussed different kinds of love.  We talked about how we loved our parents.  We admitted that we really loved our sisters, even though we fought a lot because they were sometimes mean and nasty.  We spoke endlessly about the love we would feel for our husbands when we would finally meet them, sometime during college.  We knew this meant leaving our families, and we often posed questions to one another about “what if.”  “What if you met the man of your dreams and he was from California and he wanted you to move there?”  What if you fell in love but the man didn’t love you back?”  “What if you met somebody and he was a different religion?”    

These discussions were cut short when the band began to play again.  We would join the other kids and turn our attention again to La Cucaracha.  One summer evening, crouching by the fence and eating Good Humor, June again brought up the subject of love.  “What if,” June asked “the air raid whistle blew on a week-end evening?   Would you go home and die with your parents?  Or would you stay here with me at the firehouse so that we could die together?”   Because, “ she continued “we’re best friends.”   

It was the first time in my life that somebody had made a declaration of their love to me, and asked me to do the same.  It was a serious moment in my life.  We weren’t little kids anymore. 

June and I vowed to stick together.  We would comfort each other during those few moments before the world came to an end in the nuclear attack launched by Khrushchev’s orders from the ice-cream domed Kremlin.  “Don’t worry,” June whispered, “we’ll see our parents in heaven after we die together.”  I wasn’t so sure, but I didn’t want to make June feel bad.  We didn’t say another word.  We just looked at one another and smiled, eating our Good Humor ice-cream and knowing that our friendship was strong enough to survive a nuclear bomb. 

Chalk! and the Sidewalks of New York

Chalk!

Thompson Street, home of the Tortorelli sisters, Maria (age 33) and Isabella (age 17), who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, March 25, 1911.

New York City sidewalks and chalk have been partners for generations. Setting the scene for hopscotch and stickball, chalking on the city’s pavements is a childhood ritual built into the life of young New Yorkers. Sidewalks also bear the weight of the city’s footsteps, and the hopes and dream of all New Yorkers.

Artist Ruth Sergel, founder of Chalk! , a public art project, uses the city’s pavements to honor those who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, over one hundred years ago. On March 25, 1911, shortly before closing on a Saturday afternoon, a fire broke out in one of New York City’s sweatshops. That day, 146 workers died, mostly young immigrant women and girls. The youngest of the victims was fourteen years old; the oldest was forty-three years old. Each March 25th since 2004, Ruth Sergel has organized volunteers who memorialize those lives by using chalk on the city’s sidewalks, turning tragedy into dignified remembrance.

Participants in Chalk! use sidewalk chalk to write the name and age of each victim on the pavement in front of the place she lived. It’s a ritual repeated every March 25th, as Chalk! volunteers fan out across the sidewalks of New York.

To participate in Chalk! I went to Ruth’s website, http://www.streetpictures.org. Here, I found a map populated with paper doll figures marking the spot where each of the victims of the fire had lived. I was asked to pick one or two victims to honor. The names on the list spoke of women from Italy and Jews from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. On the website -map, the little figures of women clustered in Lower Manhattan. On the streets of the Lower East Side, they piled up like pieces of fabric cut out from chalked patterns that would be stitched, piece by piece, not into shirtwaists, but into stories. Each pattern would tell the story of a voyage in steerage from Europe, a life in the tenements of New York City and a beautiful American dream, waiting to be achieved.

From the list, I selected Maria Tortorelli Lauletti (age 33) and Isabella Tortorelli (age 17), two sisters living on Thompson Street, a stone’s throw from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at Washington Square. That first year, I invited a friend to join me in Chalk! to honor these two sisters. Each year as we Chalk!, we learn something new—about Maria and Isabella—and about ourselves.

The first year of Chalk!, we imagined the walk Maria and Isabella took to work each morning. We imagined them eating lunch in Washington Square in late March, a time when New York weather can carry the promise of good times to come. We imagined them stopping briefly at St. Anthony of Padua church on Sullivan Street to light a candle or say a quick prayer. We imagined how some of their prayers involved giving thanks for finding work together in a building so modern that it even had an elevator. But most of all that first year of Chalk!, we thought of these two lives, cut short in the horrible events of March 25, 1911. By the end of that afternoon, our hands were covered with the dust of colored chalk. We transferred traces of that chalk onto our faces as we wiped away our tears.

The next year, as the details of their lives were revealed, we latched on to the hopes and dreams of the sisters for their new lives in America. Maria, we learned, was a widow with five children. We looked at the façade of the building at 133 Thompson Street. We wondered: Which windows were hers? What hopes were in the daydreams of her children as they looked out those windows to the streets below, where now, we chalked their mother’s name in a green triangle on the sidewalk? As we finished chalking at 116 Thompson Street, where Isabella had lived with her parents, we wondered if she had a fiancé or a boyfriend. When the tragedy struck, was she setting aside her wages for a new life and family of her own?

Last year, returning to Chalk! on Thompson Street, the store owners recognized and welcomed us: “Look, it’s the Tortorelli sisters again. We’ve been expecting you.” We left our coats and bags in one store and set to work with our bucket of colored sidewalk chalk. At the end of the exercise, we felt, once again, a sense of connection with these two lives that were lost over one hundred years ago.

What was so special for us was that it was on this latest March 25th, it was the LIVES of the two sisters we remembered ; not the deaths. We remembered Isabella and Maria Tortorelli as women of courage, women of vision, women of determination, women of hard work and perseverance. The sisters were, we told each other, “a couple of really great New York women.” For one day, until passing footsteps and rain washed the chalk from the sidewalk on Thompson Street, their lives were part of our city again. Their hopes and dreams lived again in the sound of footsteps, walking over colored chalk, on the sidewalks of New York.

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Kim Dramer teaches at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University. She now corresponds via email with Mary Ann Hacker, a great-granddaughter of Maria Tortorelli Lauletti, who lives in Arizona and works as a seamstress.
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